Interesting post last week on Patrick Butler’s cuts blog. As I’ve discussed before here and here, politicians of all parties love volunteering and fall over themselves in the race to ascribe volunteers with mystical powers. For our leaders, volunteering – people ‘just doing’ good things for free – is as magical as social enterprise with the added bonus that more people have actually heard of it.
As with all magic solutions that politicians really like, there is an alternative reality experienced by people trying to act on their enthusiasm. While it’s true that, one way or another, we have hit on a novel way of increasing % levels of volunteers – being on the receiving of a global economic meltdown, leading to a significant increase in unemployment – the fact that many of those who find themselves out of work are choosing to volunteering isn’t necessarily great news.
Butler picks up this telling quote from Kirsty Palmer, chief executive Volunteer Centre Kensington and Chelsea in LVSC’s Big Squeeze survey of the impact of the recession and public sector cuts on voluntary sector groups in London:
“Surely, then, this new army of volunteers who are coming forward are the answer to these organisations’ prayers. Well… to put it bluntly, no. Over 80% of the volunteers registering with Volunteer Centre K&C are looking for administrative work with a view to building experience to help them get a paid job. However, fewer than 20% of our organisations are looking for this kind of help…”
This is a new twist on a familiar problem or, more accurately, it’s a familiar problem at increased volume. Unfortunately, in my 12 years as a social enterprise/voluntary sector professional – all in organisations with between 2 and 9 paid staff – I’ve never been in the position of having a package of admin work that could practically be given to a regular volunteer.
If you’re a small organisation that doesn’t have a reception desk that needs to be sat at or large amounts of data processing or mailing out needing to be done then you’re more likely to unnecessarily expend resources trying to find things for an administrative volunteer to do than you are to generate any positive benefit from their attendance.
Butler also reflects tellingly on the failure of the increase in volunteer to maintain services previously delivered by paid staff: “As the (Big Squeeze) survey report makes clear, the cuts are reaching a tipping point for some organisations: volunteers or no volunteers, cost-cutting only takes you only so far. Eventually, capacity, skills and organisational experience start to wither away or disappear entirely – at a time when the need for them is growing massively.”
Volunteers can do a lot but the idea, offered regularly by the government during one period of Big Society, that volunteers can step in and carry out previous paid roles at the same (or a similar) level is deeply misguided. It doesn’t say much for ministers’ views of voluntary sector leaders if they genuinely believe that we’ve spent years spending money employing people to do work that lots of people could and would happily do for free.
That said, in some cases in may be possible to fill the gap left by professionally delivered voluntary sector services with alternative activities that fulfil broadly similar functions. So, for example, if the funds are no longer available to provide a mental health day centre, there may be ways that people who used that service can be supported to organise their own local groups that provide people with a place to meet together.
For social enterprise, there is the question of how many services which are disappearing can be turned into sustainable businesses or projects based on the people who use the service paying all (or some) of the costs. The discussions about what the voluntary sector and social enterprises do when the money runs out are definitely not over. Hopefully, the notion that there’s an easy answer – provided by volunteers stepping in and doing everything for free – can now be discarded.